We’re halfway through the story! In this week’s installment, Nadzia discovers a new ally, takes a much-needed break in the river, and uses her wits to convince the gardener that all is well.
For previous chapters, click here.
As goddess of the earth, Mokosh ruled over its groundwaters, a jurisdiction that included the sacred springs flowing to the Order of Bursztyn’s fountain. She visited the convent often, not just to confirm the purity of its water, but to monitor the rearing and education of her sister’s children, a task she’d accepted with sorrowful determination after the mermaid goddess perished. Novices and Elders alike felt a special kinship with her, trusted her as someone who wanted only the best for them.
Did that affinity, Nadzia wondered, extend to confiding their plan to vanquish the god of storms? Perhaps each abbess had kept that information private for over five centuries, showing Mokosh what she expected to see and nothing more.
How was Nadzia supposed to know?
She pushed down the anxiety clamping her stomach like a vise as she walked with Perun in the morning breeze. Best to maintain her façade of contentment while watching the goddess for clues.
If Mokosh knew of the Order’s conspiracy, she gave no outward sign, greeting the couple at the bottom of the temple steps with a warm embrace redolent of pine and apple-scented briars. She wore a simple gown covered by forest green robes lined with pockets that held various objects and small creatures she kept for company. Flowers vined through her russet curls, crowned by a tiny nest of hummingbirds. “Good morrow, my dears,” she gushed. “May the Fates bless your union with joy and tranquility.”
“Happiness I gladly accept,” Perun said with a boisterous laugh. “We shall see whether I am suited to peace and quiet.”
Mokosh pinched his cheek. “It looks like the change has already begun. You appear more at ease, if perhaps a tad tired. Busy night?”
She turned her attention to Nadzia. “How lovely you’ve grown! I hope my brother appreciates your charms.”
“Indeed I do.” Perun kissed both women and stepped away. “It is good to see you, sister. I hope you have a productive day. Nadzia, I look forward to our evening.”
He moved back several yards, morphed into eagle form and flew off with a high-pitched whistle of farewell. Mokosh waited until he was a speck in the sky and then linked arms with Nadzia. “It’s far too fine a morning to talk inside. Let me show you the grove where the ceremony will be held.”
They followed a path behind the garden that led to a hilltop clearing surrounded by shrubs and giant oaks. The trees provided a welcome respite from the summer heat. This far south there was no soothing ocean breeze to counter the sun’s intensity. Nadzia wiped away a bead of sweat trickling down her brow. Hopefully, she wouldn’t be here long—she yearned for a private, cool swim.
Mokosh guided them to a bench that overlooked the meadows and river and gave an unrestricted view of the cottage. “We hope everyone will be in place no later than mid-morning. Although Immortals are immune to heat, mortals are not, especially those coming from the coast.”
“They can always cool off in the Nemunas. I’m looking forward to a dip later.” Nadzia peered down at the dock, where a boatman chatted with Adomas as they unloaded cargo from a small vessel tied to the pier. “Look,” she said, rising halfway from her seat. “That box . . . it has turquoise mermaids stamped on the top and sides . . . it’s from the Order of Bursztyn!”
A baby fox peeked out of Mokosh’s robes and barked. “Hungry are you, my little one?” The goddess held out her hand, murmured, and offered the kit a palmful of ripe blueberries. “Yes, the convent has shipped a parcel to you.”
“You’re not surprised.” Nadzia fell back onto the bench “It’s here at your behest?”
“I have heard the prayers of many a woman who has left home. It is a grievous experience even when done for noble purposes. Small comforts can ease the transition, help you stay strong. I spoke with your gardener, too. He mentioned your desire for certain items. Sister Ramuna and I filled a carton with your favorite books. For solace and entertainment.”
“Thank you.” Nadzia dabbed at her eyes. She hadn’t expected anyone, let alone a goddess, to understand the sorrow she felt at leaving her family, no matter how righteous the cause. What good would it do to speak of her loneliness? She had a task to fulfill. Her feelings didn’t matter.
“So, tell me, dear,” Mokosh urged. “Has it been difficult?”
“It’s hard, being away from the sea,” Nadzia admitted. “But I’m going to be made a goddess. I’ll protect the oceans and rivers for eternity, leaving you with one less task. Knowing that helps.”
“You are in an extraordinary position. The pressure to succeed is enormous. I imagine it’s most wearying. Don’t forget the flask Sister Bronis gave you. The water within is most refreshing, and I enchanted the vial so that it never runs dry.”
“The flask,” Nadzia echoed dully. Was Mokosh hinting at something more?
Mokosh stroked the fox until it purred. “And those books from the convent. You have a penchant for stories about love and adventure. An interesting array, well suited to your purpose. My brother will enjoy hearing them. You have such a dulcet voice. He’ll be so enamored he’ll never guess your true goal.”
“My flask . . . my goal.” Nadzia studied her companion. As much as she would love to have Mokosh as an ally, she didn’t want to reveal secrets only to discover she’d been tricked. “You mean—?”
“I know what the convent intends, yes, and I support them whole-heartedly.”
“But it’s contrary to what your parents want. How can you act against them?”
Mokosh’s fists clenched. The fox yelped in protest and retreated to the safety of her robes. “They did not find Jūratė clinging to life in her cave. They did not watch her essence fade after she gave birth, hear her beg me, as she lay dying, to watch over her daughters and keep them safe from the god of storms.”
“The Order’s rebellion was your idea?”
“You can thank Veles for that. As part of the council deciding Perun’s fate, he argued for death—expulsion, at the very least. Wasted words. Dievas has always indulged the fiery god he created. He refused to consider so harsh a sentence and coerced the other members into ruling as he wished.”
“The Fates accepted his judgement.”
Mokosh laughed bitterly. “What else could they do? Faeries are proud beings. They would rather agree to absolve a murderer than admit he’d taken them by surprise.”
Nadzia reached for the goddess’s hand, kneading the warm flesh until it relaxed. “It must have been agonizing to watch him walk free.”
“A pain shared by others, as Veles and I soon discovered. Many of my brethren agreed that killing one of our own was unforgivable, that justice had not been served. And so our cabal began.”
“Is it a large group?” Nadzia felt a stirring of hope. With a phalanx of deities supporting her, success was more likely.
“We have not kept our resistance unknown by spilling names. I have shared this much only so you will not feel so alone. Continue with your mission. It appears you’ve done well so far. Perun looked almost peaceful before he flew off.”
“We had an incredible night.” Nadzia blushed at the memory. “But I’m worried he’s using my handmaiden as a spy.”
“His servants are loyal. There’s little they won’t do for him. Tell me, how has this girl drawn your suspicions?”
Nadzia squinted, remembering the unease she felt in the temple. “She creeps up on me like a mouse, as if she wants to catch me in a mistake. I’m certain she knows I hid something in one of my wardrobe drawers yesterday. A shawl I forgot to leave behind when I visited the convent with Veles. I was stuffing it inside when Gabi startled me.”
“I spoke with the girl at the temple before you arrived this morning. She did not seem happy about your switching domiciles.”
“At least now there’s a door I can close. And all the servants have been instructed to knock before entering.”
Mokosh snorted lightly. “Which works only when you’re inside. Isn’t it part of Gabi’s job to keep all the buildings clean?”
“Not anymore. I told Perun I wanted to take care of our cottage.”
“A wise decision, yet it won’t deter the girl if she is my brother’s emissary. You can’t possibly stay confined in a stone house with a killer, no matter how lively his ardor.”
Nadzia rubbed at an ache in her temple. She hadn’t considered all the repercussions of moving. “I just wanted someplace to bewitch Perun without worrying about spies, but all Gabi need do is watch and wait for me to leave. It won’t take long for her to realize I enjoy swimming every day. I suppose I should find another place to keep my belongings, especially the belt from Sister Bronis, although gods know where that might be.”
Mokosh grinned as the fox peeked out again. “Gabi won’t be able to work if she’s stricken with a rash,” she said blandly, offering the animal more fruit. “You have patches of stinging nettles nearby. I can arrange for the girl to stumble into them.”
“Cuts from nettles heal in a day or two,” Nadzia replied, her shoulders drooping in disappointment. “And if they don’t, the cook has a large herbal garden. I’d wager she has a balm for everything.”
“Then I will ensure the girl rubs up against one of my plants. Something prickly, to match her temperament. Look, there she is now, sneaking toward your house.” Mokosh flicked her fingers; red rose bushes appeared on both sides of the cottage’s entry. Gabi’s dress snagged on thorns as she reached for the doorknob. She tried to dislodge the fabric but caught her hands in the briar. Her shriek carried up the hill.
“You needn’t worry about that one again,” Mokosh said, her lips twitching. “Those scratches will blister and weep; her recovery should take some time.”
Nadzia squirmed at the girl’s obvious pain as she fled back to her home, calling for the cook. “She’ll get better eventually, won’t she?”
“Not until the day you marry.”
“Who will tend Perun’s temple in the meantime? I don’t want Ludvika to take on more duties.”
The goddess stood and stretched. ““Let me handle the matter. Now, we’d best talk about your wedding. That is,” she said with a wink, “why I’m here, after all.”
“Of course. I want to be able to answer any questions, should Perun ask.”
“I’m sure he’s been informed and already forgotten the details. He tends to focus on his own concerns. Come.”
Mokosh guided Nadzia to the middle of the clearing. “The two of you will stand beneath an arch here, the gods on one side, mortals on the other. Dievas and Rodzenica intend to speak briefly at the onset. My father will conduct the marriage ceremony and then make you a goddess.”
“And your mother will liberate Perun’s heart from this stone.” Nadzia toyed with her pendant as doubt flitted through her mind. “Are you certain my sisters’ keening will immobilize all the gods? Your parents are formidable.”
“We need only a few moments. You must act without delay. Hesitate and all is lost.”
“Everyone will be in attendance, is that right? Even the gods and goddesses who wish Perun ill?”
Mokosh knelt, beckoned to a rabbit sniffing the base of a tree, and fed it a handful of sweet-smelling grass. “Of course. Our absence would draw suspicion.”
“I hate to think that anyone who sides with the convent will suffer, even briefly.”
“Veles has everything under control. The mermaids’ screeches won’t harm us. We’ll have stuffed our ears with beeswax, we’ll only pretend to succumb.”
“The humans will have no such protection.”
“An unfortunate consequence,” Mokosh said, lifting her shoulders in a half shrug. “One we cannot avoid. Don’t fret overlong over their discomfort. Veles will leave a basin of magicked bellflower tincture outside the cook’s cottage with instructions for its use. A drop in each ear and the pain will vanish.”
Nadzia fell silent, remembering her unease around the god of the underworld. That he despised his tempestuous brother was beyond dispute. Just how far he’d go to exact revenge was the mystery yet to be solved. She sensed that Mokosh would not welcome comments or questions casting doubt on Veles’s motives. Not after half a milennia of plotting together. If there were puzzles to be unraveled, she’d have to find the solutions on her own.
She returned the discussion to the ceremony. “It sounds as if the whole event won’t last more than a few minutes.”
“Happy as most are to see Perun wed,” Mokosh replied, nodding in agreement, “they are even happier for a chance to revel.”
Nadzia laughed at that. “I believe the mortals are looking forward to a party as well. What should we serve?”
“I’ve already spoke with Ludvika. She’ll arrange for tables, tents, platters, utensils, and such. I’ll provide ample food and drink, make sure this area is properly festooned.”
“What about the Immortals?”
“Rodzenica is planning a most exquisite affair at the Tree of Life. Endless nectar, strolling musicians, a rare appearance by the Queen of the Fairies—I understand she’ll perform a song written in your honor.”
Nadzia plucked a blue-petaled wildflower and twirled the stem. “I wonder if anyone will even want to celebrate. What happens after Rodzenica realizes her son’s heart is gone? Won’t she be furious? Dievas, too?”
Her heart thumped wildly in sudden fear. “My sisters! They’ll be punished!”
“Perhaps even slain.” Mokosh’s breath caught. She took a moment to compose herself. When she spoke again, her voice was clear and steady. “They know the risks. Their commitment has not wavered. But never forget that those of us who support their defiance will do everything in our power to keep Jūratė’s daughters safe from harm.”
Nadzia shivered at the idea of possible death and destruction. “You’ll expose yourselves in the process. Maybe even start a war amongst the gods.”
“We have honed the art of hiding our actions in plain sight. We do not anticipate chaos, at least not for long. Dievas craves order. We expect him to direct the council to convene at at the Tree of Life, summon his children and listen to our accounts. Which, I assure you, will be quite muddled and uncertain. He’ll never learn what really happened.”
Nadzia tore at the blossom in her hand, shredding the petals. “I didn’t expect things to be so complicated. So much could go wrong.”
“That is true of any undertaking.” Mokosh said softly. “But if we do not seek justice, none will. Remember, you are a child of the earth and sea, graced with strength from both elements. We believe you will triumph, and I am but a prayer away should you need reassurance.”
Nadzia’s eyes welled as the goddess embraced her and then disappeared into the trees, trailed by a fawn. The knots in her stomach loosened, and she made her way down the hill to the dock, ready to let the river work its magic.
Beads of sweat trickled down Nadzia’s back as she descended the hillside and crossed a meadow of knee-high flowers, stopping occasionally to rub wild rosemary between her palms and inhale its glorious scent. A trio of golden orioles passed above, flying through a brilliant blue, cloudless sky, their paths straight with a few shallow dips, their song a fluting weela-wee-ooo.
She waved to the gardener sorting boxes on the dock, her spirits high now that Gabi was indisposed. A temporary solution, true, but she had Mokosh’s assurance that the girl would make a full recovery. No lasting harm, no scars. Best of all, no more worries about spying or churlish behavior from a servant whose loyalty would never extend to the god of storms’ bride. Nadzia was free to continue her seduction, bolstered by the surprising news that a secret league of gods and goddesses supported the convent’s quest for vengeance, not just the slippery Veles—whose motives still gave her pause. She didn’t question his hatred of Perun, the evidence for that was indisputable. She simply couldn’t shake the feeling that his true intentions remained hidden.
Adomas greeted his mistress with a stiff bow, kept his eyes lowered and fixed on the newly delivered parcels when he straightened. He pointed to the crate stamped with turquoise mermaids. “There’s one for you today. Shall I open it here for your inspection or do you trust me to deliver the contents to your cottage undisturbed? I don’t want to intrude on your privacy.”
His bristling tone took Nadzia by surprise; he’d shown no sign of ill-humor after her directive the previous night. She bit back a retort. This was his home, after all, and he’d welcomed her warmly, without suspicion or petulance. He deserved respect and honesty—as much as she could manage, given the circumstances.
“My desire for solitude was not meant as censure,” she said, keeping her voice warm and friendly. “There have been no misdeeds or improprieties on your part. The temple is simply too open, too exposed. Everyone else here can shut a door, seal off the world when day is done, and find rejuvenation in whatever manner pleases them. I deserve the same courtesy, a place to rest and reflect.”
“Were you not surrounded by others at the Order of Bursztyn?”
“I shared a room with my sisters, yes, but it was closed to outsiders.”
Nadzia reached out to the gardener, waited for him to take her hands and meet her gaze. “You remind me of one of my favorite Elders at the convent,” she said, running her thumbs lightly over his fingers. “Sister Bronis is her name. She oversees our gardens and meadery. I have complete faith in her discretion, her honesty, her virtue. Though we are but newly met, I sense similar qualities in you. Believe me, a request for seclusion on my part was meant neither as a personal affront to your character nor a sign of displeasure. It was simply the wish of a somewhat overwhelmed novice for time alone to contemplate the vast changes in her life.”
Adomas nodded, his eyes glistening. “Forgive me. Perun and I took such joy in preparing your part of the temple, we gave no thought to the concerns you’ve raised. Although, come to think of it, I do recall Ludvika remarking at one point that thicker curtains might be wise.”
“Men are used to shaping things as they see fit, eschewing women’s counsel,” Nadzia said with a wry smile, releasing his hands. “Consider this a gentle reminder rather than a rebuke. Now, you have chores and I’m dying for a swim. Is there someplace secluded nearby where I can disrobe?”
“You’re going into the river naked? I don’t think the master would approve.”
Nadzia laughed at the shock on the gardener’s face. “Don’t worry. I’m not of a mind to bare all around strangers. I can swim in my chemise, but I’d rather not leave my gown on the pier.” She shaded her eyes, scanned the area. “Perun said you had a food locker. I don’t see one.”
“I keep it under the dock,” Adomas said, pointing to a ladder that descended to the riverbank. “Your clothes will be safe inside, albeit a tad cold.”
“I’m a daughter of the sea. I’ve yet to encounter a chill I can’t handle.”
“Then I will see to my work.” Adomas paused, seemingly at a loss for words. He let out a long breath and put a hand to his heart. “Thank you, mistress. I will try to do better.”
“And I will strive to make my intentions clear so that we always understand one another,” Nadzia said, echoing his action. “Please set my package on the floor next to my rocking chair. I shouldn’t be gone more than a few hours.”
“I imagine you’ll be famished by then. Help yourself to whatever you like from the cooler. I stock it daily.”
“I’ll do that.” Nadzia slipped off her sandals, laced them around her neck, and climbed down to the end of the ladder. She stepped into ankle-deep water surrounded by clusters of reeds, a haven for carp and catfish hiding from hungry predators. Adomas’s rock-walled chamber nestled against the riverbank beneath the back dock pilings. A clever arrangement. The water chilled the food and the stones kept out scavengers.
She slid aside the thin top stone, revealing several earthenware crocks. Curious, she checked each one. Boiled eggs, cheese with caraway seeds, strawberries, a flask of mint tea. A perfect repast after a hearty excursion. Adomas might be a bit thick-headed when it came to women, but he certainly knew his food.
After easing off her gown and carefully folding it atop the crocks, she replaced the cover and tied her footwear to the ladder’s middle rung. Within moments, she’d slipped into the river, blessedly alone in her element at last.
Relief surged through her veins, melting away the tension that lingered in her shoulders. She dove deep, seeking stillness and sanctuary, a respite from the day’s stifling heat. Gills opened on both sides of her neck, webs grew between her fingers and feet. With strokes swift and sure, she swam against currents that—if offered no resistance—would carry her westward to Palanga, a temptation best ignored. These waters were crystal clear, the risk of being seen by a fisherman too great. As much as she preferred the salty swells of the sea, she would have to make do with what was at hand, never give anyone reason to question or remark upon her presence away from Kaunas.
After a few miles, she surfaced to better appraise her surroundings. Each bend of the river brought new pleasures: dragonflies flitting near the shore, their orange wings flashing in the sun as they cruised for flies and gnats; a white stork prowling amid cattails for spiny-finned zander fish; turtles sunning on logs; fire-bellied toads serenading her with throaty songs.
Next time out she’d spend more time above water and appreciate them more fully. Follow one of the numerous tributaries leading to places unknown. With so much to explore, this month away from the coast might actually prove pleasant, and the younger novices at the convent would definitely relish hearing about places they’d never seen. Maybe she’d even catch a glimpse of the colorful yet reclusive vagabonds who lived in caravans and camped outside Palanga each year, venturing into town to sell their wares at the Harvest Festival.
The sun blazed straight ahead, perhaps halfway on its path between the crest of the sky and the horizon. Time to turn around if she wanted to be ready at the cottage before twilight’s gloaming. She sank down into the water and changed direction, marveling at the way the sun sparkled underwater. Something shiny glimmered from a hole in the river bottom. Nadzia ventured closer and reached out, curious. The hole shook and widened. She backed away, readied a note in her throat that would immobilize any creature and allow her to escape—if her voice crippled monsters of the deep, it should be just as effective here.
The water trembled, the river grew thick with silt, clouding her vision. Nadzia held her breath and then sputtered in surprise as the sludge cleared and a dappled snake burst upward with bared fangs.
She shot to the surface, furious. Fates be damned, was there no respite from the lord of the Underworld?
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Veles said, joining her with a grin that suggested otherwise. “Still, you must agree, this is a most opportune place to meet, a good distance from my brother’s temple. Even if we’re seen, there’s no reason for anyone to go squealing to Kaunas. For all anyone knows, we’re simply two friends—even lovers—enjoying the pleasures of the Nemunas.”
“A fiction possible only if you keep your torso above water and your scales hidden.”
“And you refrain from waving your webbed fingers.” Veles circled Nadzia, his movements slow and sinuous. “Let’s not argue. That isn’t why I’ve come.”
Nadzia eyed him warily. He might be a stalwart ally in the abbess’s eyes, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was much more than he appeared. “What do you want?”
“Such a suspicious girl—you’d think we were foes rather than allies. I assure you, there’s nothing sinister about my presence. You’ve traveled far today. I simply thought to suggest turning back so you weren’t overly tired. This is a lovely reprieve, but you should save your energy for my brother. Gods know he can be exhausting.”
“And you should pay more attention. I was heading toward Kaunas before you interrupted me.”
“Indeed.” Veles flicked his tongue and grinned again as he gently nudged Nadzia. “Come along, my dear. I’ll happily escort you.”
Nadzia gritted her teeth. “That isn’t necessary. I know the way.”
“Indulge me, dear girl. This is a welcome break from my realm.”
“You don’t like ruling the dead?”
“I might have chosen another domain, but I’ve made the Underworld my own. Besides, Jūratė is there to brighten my days and nights, I can’t complain about that. Which brings me to more pressing issues. Mokosh told you of our consortium?”
Nadzia sighed and gave herself over to the natural pull of the river. She needed to put aside the personal reservations she had about Veles—if the goddess of the earth trusted him, she could do no less. “Yes. I’m heartened to know of their support.”
“Remember us if your spirits flag. We are most willing to help our champion.”
Mercifully, Veles fell silent as they continued down the river, rousing from time to time to point out colorful fish or a wonderfully variegated stone. The sky paled, took on the first hues of dusk, casting the dome of Perun’s temple in rosy light. Veles veered toward a hole in the riverbank. “A delight, as always,” he said, blowing a kiss. “Until we meet again.”
Nadzia eased her body toward the bank and emerged, dripping. She wrung out her braid, gathered her gown from the cooler, and made a nest to hold a late lunch of eggs and cheese—no berries, they’d stain the fabric. With eventide approaching, she looked forward to a quick bite on the pier, drying off in the last rays of the sun with only birds for company.
At the top of the ladder, she found Adomas waiting, a thick towel in hand. “I’ve a good view of the dock from my cabin,” he said. “Thought you might want this.” His voice dropped, became somber. “Your handmaiden should handle such a task, but she’s been injured. Badly, Ludvika says.”
Guilt tugged at Nadzia. She shunted it aside, knowing the girl would heal. “I’m so sorry. Should I stop by and offer my help? I know a few songs that are good for soothing pain.”
“You might want to keep your distance,” Adomas said with a quick jerk of his head. “Gabi was raving when I visited. She called you a witch, claimed you want to ruin Perun. Said the roses that pricked her fingers appeared out of nowhere, like an enchantment.”
“Oh, well, that much is true.”
Adomas backed away, anger flashing in his eyes. “You hurt Gabi?”
“No, no, it isn’t what you think.” Nadzia pointed toward the end of the pier and imbued her voice with sweet persuasion. “If you would set down the towel over there, I’ll use it as a cushion while I explain.”
She followed his halting gait, breathing deeply as she gathered her thoughts, and then settled at the edge of the pier with her legs dangling, her meal untouched in her lap. “Sit with me, please,” she said, patting the boards. “It’s a simple misunderstanding.”
Adomas frowned and positioned himself several feet to Nadzia’s side. “What’s simple about maiming a servant?”
“You’re aware that Mokosh came today?”
“Yes, she called on me this morning.” Adomas smiled faintly. “She likes my garden.”
“As well she should. You’ve done a marvelous job. But her purpose was to go over the details of my wedding. She took me to the clearing where the ceremony will be held. It has a marvelous vista. When I mentioned that I’d moved to Perun’s cottage, she decided the front looked bare and conjured up roses on either side of the door. So, you see, there was enchantment involved, but not on my part. Gabi must not have been paying attention when she brushed up against them later.”
Adomas looked at her blankly. His mouth opened and closed, as if he was battling over how to phrase his response. He took off his hat, ran a hand through his hair, huffed. “If Mokosh is the cause of the wounds, then shouldn’t she mend them?”
“Are you blaming the goddess for a mortal’s clumsiness?” Nadzia broke off a piece of cheese, chewing slowly and deliberately while the gardener considered her question. “I can’t believe she would take kindly to such a charge. But you are free to petition for her aid.”
The gardener smoothed the brim of his hat, seeming to weigh Nadzia’s suggestion. She waited a moment more and added a note of caution. “Before you act, be sure to reflect on the consequences of such a request. Ludvika has a yard full of healing herbs, does she not?”
“And she knows how to tend to Gabi’s injuries, has done so even as we speak?”
Nadzia pursed her lips. “Then you would be asking a goddess to forgo her endless duties to the earth and attend to a situation already under control. Is that wise?”
“I suppose not,” Adomas said, his shoulders drooping. “I just hate to see Gabi suffer.”
“She’s lucky to have you as a friend.” Nadzia brightened her tone. “Cheer up. I’m sure she’ll be better before long. Why not bring her some flowers or a bowlful of berries from your garden? Tell her how the roses came about so she doesn’t fret over nonsense.”
Adomas straightened, his face set with determination. “I’ll put together a bouquet now. Unless you require my assistance? Your box is in the cottage.”
“A cottage you entered and left without mishap.” Nadzia leaned over and gently grasped Adomas’s shoulder. “Be gentle with Gabi. I think my arrival upset her. From what I’ve seen, she’s accustomed to Perun’s undivided attention. Losing that can’t be easy.”
“Even so, it was wrong of her to accuse you of sorcery.”
Nadzia waved her hand in dismissal. “Think no more of it. I won’t. Thank you for delivering my parcel.”
“A heavy load.” Adomas winced and rolled his shoulders.
“I’m sure Ludvika has something to help ease your aches.”
“She has plenty of balms for old bones and joints like mine,” Adomas agreed. He scratched at the stubble on his chin. “May I ask what you received?”
And there, Nadzia realized, was the solution to her dilemma. With the box’s contents a secret, she could add her belt and the shawl she’d forgotten to return to Palanga, and no one would be the wiser. “Gifts chosen by Mokosh and Sister Ramuna, our librarian. Books, mostly—those account for the weight—but I was told to expect a few surprises as well.”
Adomas perked up at her reply. “If one of them is a bottle of mead, I’d be happy to share a glass with you.”
“I’m not much for wine, but I can write to Sister Bronis and ask her to send some. She’ll be delighted to hear that another gardener is interested in her vintage.”
“Sounds like a woman I’d like to know better,” Adomas said with a wink. “Will she attend the wedding?”
“I’ll be sure to introduce you the moment she arrives.” Nadzia smiled as the old man bowed and sauntered away, a new lightness in his step. She imagined him with the Elder, deep in discussions about plants while they sampled various bottles of mead. They’d make a fine couple.
And then the image faded, replaced by a scene of chaos, Adomas and all the humans in attendance at the wedding doubled over in agony as the daughters of Jūratė keened. Nadzia fought back tears. This wasn’t one of her books, a happy ending guaranteed. Everything she said and did in Kaunas had one purpose, and when that goal was met, this good man—a man who under any other circumstances she’d be honored to call “friend”—would realize how ill he’d been used and curse the day she came into his life.
And she would deserve every bit of his condemnation.
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski
Image of Mokosh: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/47287864826307895/